Religious Education 2

A couple of years ago (back when I was quite prolific) I wrote a long piece on my painfully ambivalent attempts to introduce my girls (just Tilly at the time, really) to the Jesus person. I just re-read it, and it’s probably one of my best (these things are, of course, relative) so if you want to re-visit it, or read it for the first time, it is here.

I raise this post, because a conversation I had with Tilly tonight gave me cause to think again about it, and its subject matter, and wonder to myself what exactly it was that she had gleaned from her ‘religious education’ thus far.

It began with a perfectly understandable question that she asked as we were praying for some of our friends and their cat (whose name neither of us could remember, so Tilly decided to call her ‘Lentil’). As I was thanking God for Lentil and the happiness that Lentil brought to her family, Tilly chimed in with:

Tilly: Why can we talk to God, but God can’t talk to us?

Me: Good question, sweetheart… ah, some people say that they can hear God talking to them sometimes.

Tilly: I don’t.

Me: Yeah, me neither.

(Awkward silence)

Me: Other people say that the Bible is God’s words to us, and that if we want to hear God speak, we read the Bible. So reading the Bible is God talking to us, and praying is us talking to God. And that is how we can have a conversation with God….

Tilly:…with a beer or wine.

This last line was said in such a tone of ah-now-I-get-it enthusiasm that I thought it best to leave the conversation there.

Perhaps the old Spiritual Syllabus needs a bit of tweaking?

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Stop it egg!

I have decided to begin the new year with a return to my blog, and, as has been the case after previous breaks from blogging, I am going to commence my blogging rehab nice and slowly. My plan is just to post small transcripts of conversations with one or other of my daughters (something that I have also used previously – with thanks to my friend CKP and the work of R.D.Laing for encouragement and inspiration).

And so, with no further ado, a small conversation about poo…

I done a poo.

I turn from the washing up

Have you done a poo, Kitty?

Yes

Would you like me to change your nappy?

Yes

Just a minute.

I turn back to the sink.

Stop it egg!

I turn again to see Kitty staring angrily at half a toy wooden egg sitting in the middle of her change mat on the floor.

Stop it egg!

Are you going to take the egg off your change mat, Kitty?

Okay.

Kitty removes the offending egg and lies down on the change mat. I wipe my soapy hands, collect the nappy changing requisites and, kneeling down at her feet, open up a nappy that is distinctly free of any trace of poo.

There’s no poo, sweetheart.

Okay.

At this point, my transcription of the conversation above was interrupted by Kitty entering the room with a tiny oven mitt on her hand. She walked up to me and pointed to her pink T-shirt with her mitt-free hand.

It yellow.

That’s a pink T-shirt, sweets.

It yellow!

Are you sure.

Yes… It yellow!

Okay.

Seemingly satisfied with the transaction, she pulled off the oven mitt and placed it carefully next to the computer keyboard, and then turned and walked away, but just before she disappeared through the doorway she fired one more ‘It yellow!’ over her shoulder. Just to be sure.

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A question about fear and death

A couple of days ago, I read a post by my friend Paul about a motorbike accident he had recently. In the post he talks about his strong desire to ride again, despite the many reasons there are for him not to. He says,

‘What I’m grappling with here is perhaps a textbook example of the age-old battle between ‘heart and mind.’ No matter how reasonable your argument against, no matter how many statistics you throw at me, no matter how many YouTube videos of unfortunate motorcyclists flicker before my glazed-over eyes, I still want to ride. I just haven’t finished with it yet.’

In the comments that follow the post, our mutual Friend, Louise, suggested that it sounded like Paul should keep riding, since ‘life is not just about avoiding death.’

This line returned to me that night. Susie and I had just finished watching the final episode of Jane Campion’s series ‘Top of the Lake‘ – a series that features a lot of sexual violence towards girls – and as I stood in my girl’s room, looking at the beauty of their sleeping faces, I was struck by how hard it is not to be overwhelmed by my fears for them. How hard it is, to paraphrase Louise, to not make parenting just about protecting your kids from pain and death.

As I’ve said before, one of the aspects of parenting that surprised me the most was the amount of fear it creates – fear that your children will die, or be hurt or abused in some way. And last night I found myself angry (with Jane Campion, of all people) for being yet one more voice conspiring to push this fear into the paralysis zone. I’m not saying that sexual violence, and the abuse of children, is never an appropriate subject for film or television. Todd Solondz’s film ‘Happiness‘ is an example of how the subject can be addressed rather than exploited. What makes me angry is the fact that these days it seems to be a go-to means for triggering horror or representing evil, merely a means to an end. Every paedophile is turned into a monster – just like every Muslim man is currently being turned into a decapitating psychopath – and the fog of fear that surrounds us just gets thicker and thicker.

So I guess what I am trying to work out is how to fight back, to work out how the presence of fear might be an enlivening blessing rather than a crippling curse. To paraphrase my friend Louise, I don’t want parenting to be just about preventing my children’s death. And at the same time I don’t want to shut down either, cut myself off from the reality of their vulnerability and their mortality.

What I am trying to do now is to take a breath. When one of my girls picks up a stick, or starts climbing a wall, I am trying to wait a beat before I shout ‘Stop!’ – time enough, I hope, to reflect on what is really at stake. I certainly don’t want my fear to leave them so risk-averse as adults that they are deaf to the urgings of their hearts, and choose not to pursue even their deepest passions, because of the risks involved. Unless, of course, that passion is motorbiking!

I am also trying, when my fears are triggered, to move from fear to gratitude (rather than just shutting down), remembering that fear of loss is the shadow side of joy, and joy is a sure sign that I have beautiful things in my life – google ‘Brené Brown fear, joy, gratitude and vulnerability’ for more details. I find that this, alongside a concerted effort to ignore the ‘small child horror story’ click bait that now appear in almost every news website, is a pretty effective means of escaping from the old paralysis zone (as opposed to Kenny Loggin’s ‘Danger Zone’ – which is a place that I never ever want to leave!)

 

 

 

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A polite child

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with politeness. As a teenager, three factors combined to create in me a contempt for it: pride, introversion and Christianity.

Introverts are, I believe, at a temperamental disadvantage in the politeness stakes. Even when we try our hardest, we always seem less polite than extroverts on their worst day, and this always seemed unfair to me. But, being a proud person, I was not content to just live with this sense of injustice, I needed to find a way in which my lack of politeness actually made me morally superior to those for whom politeness came so easily.

Luckily, this desire dovetailed perfectly with another area of struggle for me, and that was my increasing discomfort with the faith that I had grown up with. For better or for worse, it had too tight a hold on me for me to let it go, but at the same time, I became more and more desperate to disassociate myself from its public image.

Obviously, a very significant aspect of this image was the association of Christianity with bourgeois morality – the kind of morality that was designed to establish your superiority to the other, rather than being a guide to loving and compassionate engagement with the other. An abandonment of any attempt to be polite seemed to me to be the perfect way to signal to anyone I met my wholesale rejection of this type of moralising Christianity, and everything that went with it. After all, nothing makes it clearer to other people that you have no interest in dictating to them what they can and cannot do with their own body than an absolute refusal to ask them how their day is going. It was win/win. I got to be a sullen, teenage introvert, and feel morally superior, at the same time.

It was all going brilliantly until, when I was about 19, the mother of my then girlfriend described me (and I do not, in any way, exaggerate) as a psychological vampire, who was sucking every ounce of drive and positivity (for which read politeness) out of her daughter. It was this, in combination with other similar, though less extreme, instances of negative feedback, that led me to re-evaluate my stance on etiquette, and consider that perhaps I had thrown the polite baby out with the fragrant bathwater.

It has, however, remained a two steps forward, one step back process for me, ever since. If I’m tired, or distracted, I will revert to my default setting of aloof and uninterested. And I’m sure that very few of my friends would, even now, consider me a polite person. But at least I’m not smug about it anymore.

Anyway, what triggered in me all this reflection on my checkered history with good manners was an article on politeness posted by a friend of mine. It was called ‘How to be Polite‘ and I liked it because it was a take on politeness that was new for me, suggesting as it did that politeness could be a way of keeping yourself safe emotionally, of suspending judgement and of being kind in an indirect way. I won’t try to summarise it beyond that, better if you read it yourself. What stayed with me in the end, though, was just how much the writer dug politeness. Being polite was core to his sense of who he was. As a child he had found it to be a way of coping with things, and of managing his interior life and his relationships, and this orientation towards politeness had never changed.

It kind of made me wish that this had been true for me. It would have made my life a lot easier. I think that is actually all I am trying to say here. I wish politeness came more easily to me, because it’s pretty handy. But it doesn’t. And that’s okay. I just have to use other ways of staying emotionally safe and managing my own interior life and my relationships. And in case you’re worried about me, it’s okay; I have found a few.

By contrast, if a conversation I overheard the other day is anything to go by, it looks like things may be somewhat different for my first born child.

My partner was reading ‘Where the Wild Things Are‘ are to her and they had got to the page where Max, our hero, decides to leave the land of the Wild Things and head back home. The Wild Things beg him not to go, but Max just says, ‘No!’

As this line was read, Tilly immediately piped up with,’That’s not very nice. He should have said: ‘No, thanks. I’d really like to go home now, but I can come back another time.”

It seems that, when it comes to politeness at least, this little apple has fallen a long way from the paternal tree…and a good thing too.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this!

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Kitty and Sylvia

A strange thing happened tonight.

I was cooking, and Kitty (now 21 months old) brought out ‘Ariel’, a book of poems by Sylvia Plath, that she had found in the lounge room, in a box of packed up books (we have recently moved back into our house after a three month renovation, and so all our books are still in boxes). She carried it through the kitchen and over to the little white table near the back door that she likes to sit at. She leafed slowly through a few of the pages, then stood up, and walked across the room, opened the door of her toy oven, shoved the book in, closed the door again, and walked out of the room.

Now if you find yourself wondering what is so strange about this, then it is probably because you don’t know how Sylvia Plath killed herself (though you can probably guess now), or that this book of poems was published shortly after her death.

My fear is that this little sequence of actions is Sylvia Plath’s way of letting me know that she has taken possession of Kitty’s body. Or perhaps it is that Kitty is the reincarnation of Sylvia Plath. I certainly hope that my fear is unfounded, because that woman (talented though she was) had some serious issues with her father – the kind I definitely don’t want to create in either of my girls. You get a sense of how serious when you realise that, arguably, her most famous poem of all is called ‘Daddy’, and it definitely ain’t a glowing eulogy or nothin’ (it’s here if you want to read it in full).

Now when I was a younger man, I used to write poetry (or something closely resembling poetry, at least) and so for my 18th birthday, I think it was, my sister bought me a book of poems called, appropriately enough, ‘Birthday Letters’. The book was by Ted Hughes, and the poems were all about Sylvia Plath, who was his wife from 1956 until her death in 1963 – though they were separated by the time she died.

As a spooky aside, I just found out now (on the Wikipedia) that Ted and Sylvia actually got married on my birthday. In other words, my sister gave me a book called ‘Birthday Letters’ for my birthday, written by a man about a woman who he had married…on my birthday! It’s starting to feel more and more like Kitty is the reincarnation of Sylvia Plath (they were both born in late October (Kitty the 21st and Sylvia the 27th), and you know how similar one and seven can look – especially the way Kitty writes them. But anyway…

…I loved ‘Birthday Letters’, so much so that I kept trying to write song lyrics based on my favourites. I only managed to finish one. I can’t remember the name of the poem itself, and I can’t locate the book because it is at the bottom of a different box of yet-to-be-unpacked books (out of sensitivity to Sylvia I would never put the two books in the same box) – so I can’t quote you the poem, but I can quote my song. It turned out not to be about Sylvia at all, but that is a different story.

It is called ‘Bullet’ (I wish I could embed the song for you to listen to, but I’ve never recorded it, and I’ve blown the headphone jack in my iMac, so I can’t even do a rough recording.) Anyway, it goes like this…

Bullet

I think it was your father who aimed you at God.

When he died he pulled the trigger that set you off.

Your whole life has been a ricochet from one man to the next.

Each one died on impact, shot through the heart.

 

Solid steel, nickel tipped, forty-five, straight through the heart

 

It wasn’t for a long time I even knew I’d been hit.

That you’d passed straight through me to the heart of it.

In my place a better man would have caught you in his bare hands,

And tossed you cooling to the ground.

 

Solid steel, nickel tipped, forty-five, straight through the heart

 

Then I think how you’re not like her.

Yeah, I think how you’re not like her.

With your dead eyes and dress of fire,

Sliding slowly to the floor.

 

They say they travel faster than the speed of sound,

So you don’t hear the one that gets you ‘til you’re on the ground.

All I wanted was to be a man – to love a woman who I didn’t understand.

Now it’s too late. Now it’s too late.

 

Solid steel, nickel tipped, forty-five, straight through the heart

(two weeks later)

After I read over the lyrics of the song, I realised that, like most song lyrics, they didn’t seem quite as ‘powerful’ out of the context of the song itself, which made me hesitant to post it. Then the other day, it occurred to me that I could download Garageband as an app to our iPad and use that as my recording device. So I did exactly that, and yesterday recorded a very rough version, with a dinky drum loop and a single vocal take (you can tell because I fluff the lines in the last verse). Anyway, here it is. Feel free to read the lyrics again as you listen and experience the added angst and profundity…

So it turns out that after months of ‘blogger block’ I finally have a new muse, little Kitty. And if it does turn out that she is in fact Sylvia Plath II (or is it III?), then one day, I guess, I will probably be hers. It’s a sobering thought.

Note: At one point I thought of calling this post ‘Amusing Musings on Muses’, but then it occurred to me that I actually wanted people to read it.

 

 

 

 

 

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I wish you a Shitty Easter

Last year, I wrote my version of the Christmas Story (I’ve pasted it at the bottom of this post if you’re curious). I wrote the story as a way of channelling the nausea generated in me by the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild-no-crying-he-makes representation of the story.

For me, (and this is – a la Alain de Botton – setting aside the truth or otherwise of Christian claims about Jesus) the Christmas story, the idea of God becoming a human being of flesh and blood, is (or at least, should be) about as far from sweet and sentimental as you can get. Human birth is such an intense combination of joy and fear, pleasure and pain, chaos and beauty, all watched over by the shadow of death and the dazzling intensity of new life. To airbrush all this out of the story seems criminal to me.

Which brings me to Easter – a stranger beast by far. A story of torture and execution is much harder to sentimentalise, let’s be honest. It doesn’t matter how many coats of compound chocolate you put on a crown of thorns, it is still going to be tricky to keep a happy smile on your face while you choke it down. We try though, don’t we? In fact, the way our culture does Easter sometimes feels to me like a bizarre kind of wake, where the body of the deceased, instead of being on a table in the middle of the room, is lying in a dark corner, while everyone tries their best to pretend it isn’t even there.

I was listening to a feminist theologian the other day, who helped me make sense of this strange phenomenon, by introducing me to the term ‘the Abject’ (as it is used in the work of the feminist psychoanalyst and writer, Julia Kristeva). The same theologian also suggested that the perfect Jesus for our times would be an overweight middle-aged woman, but I’ll save that discussion for another post.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, Kristeva’s use of the term ‘the abject, refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality); however, other items can elicit the same reaction: the open wound, shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk.’ (the quote is from here)

When I came across this quote the other day, it struck me immediately that, with the exception of the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk, all these ‘items’ are present in a crucifixion. The corpse that was taken down from the cross, would not only have featured the open wounds we are familiar with from the Easter narrative, but the legs would, without doubt, have been covered in a crust of drying shit and piss. He was up there for a long time remember, and my understanding is that crucifixions did not involve toilet breaks.

This, to my mind, is why Easter is such a weird one. God’s embrace of the abject is not an easy thing to make sense of, let alone ‘celebrate’. After all, the church itself has spent much of the last two millennia ignoring the implications of Good Friday, so you can’t blame a post-christian culture for finding it tricky to know what to do with it.

Anyway, now you know why I am wishing you a shitty Easter. Forgive me that I don’t have a chocolate egg as a reward for reading the above (it was one of my more convoluted efforts, I know), but you can have a little story instead (pasted below, as promised)

A Shepherd’s Story

If I’d been alone, I would have thought it was a dream. It was the stuff of dreams. Light so intense it turned night to day; a heavenly choir; an angel in the air above us, telling us that the Messiah, the promised one, the Holy one of God, had been born… in a shed just up the road.

But when I looked around, I saw the joy and terror I was feeling in the faces of all the others, and I knew it wasn’t a dream, or if it was, it was one we’d had together.

And without a word, we started walking, as if in a trance, in the direction of Bethlehem. The dogs started running back and forth from us to the sheep, from the sheep to us, confused, not knowing what to do, where they were meant to be. In the end, half of them stayed with the flock (which had managed to sleep through the whole thing) and half of them came with us.

Afterwards, I did remember that the angel had mentioned a manger, but that detail was kind of lost, at the time, in the whole Angelic, Glory of the Lord, Heavenly Choir thing, and so I imagine we all thought the same thing… that we were on our way to the Synagogue or the Rabbi’s house or something. So much so that had it not been such a still night, and if the baby hadn’t cried out exactly at the moment we passed the doors of the stable, we probably would have walked on by…

…Now, I’d only been a shepherd for a year or so back then, but I’d seen my fair share of lambs being born, and it can be a messy business. But it didn’t prepare me for what we saw when we walked in. Even in the dull light thrown by the one lonely flickering candle you could see the straw on the ground (you couldn’t really call it a floor) was matted with blood and vomit and shit. The stench, animal and human, was overpowering. In the darkest corner there was a donkey, maybe two, and a couple of cows, eyes rolling, stamping and snorting in distress (at what they’d just witnessed, I guess). In another corner, the father was sitting, bloodstained hands covering his face, sobbing.

In the centre of the stable, slumped over the feed trough, was the mother, almost a child herself, her face white with shock and blood loss. And in the trough itself, wrapped in muddy scraps of cloth, a sleeping baby.

We just stood there, with no clue what to do or where to look. This was not the scene that any of us had expected. Who knows how long we would have just stood there, paralysed, if Daniel’s dog hadn’t made a dash for the placenta, and then headed out the door with it in his mouth. Daniel set off after him, the rest of the dogs following, barking hysterically. And well, that certainly broke the spell.

The baby started to cry – that newborn cry, just like a baby goat. The girl, the mother, placed her hand on the baby’s belly and lifted her face… and I saw it there, beneath the utter exhaustion and the dirty tracks of tears… that look, the look I’d seen on the faces of my friends, in the field. The same mix of joy and terror…

There must have been a trace of it still on our faces as well, because all of a sudden I could see that she saw it too… that she knew that we knew… that we had come to see him. In a whisper, she said, ‘Come’.

I can’t explain it, but as I looked down at that tiny, bleating creature, his face still covered with the sticky white traces of the womb, I was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of joy, and hope. There was really nothing about him, but…

Anyway, we got them some food, and helped tidy up the place a little, as much as we could. I even found some clean straw for Mary – that was the girl’s name – to clean the baby off a bit.

I watched her do it… The stupid thing is that what stayed with me was, and don’t laugh, but it was his foreskin. It was the first time I’d ever seen one close up. The tiny wrinkled foreskin of the chosen one of God…

…We didn’t see them again. We don’t come into town much, and the next time we did they’d gone. Up north, apparently. I guess they were just down for the Census. I actually did think I’d heard an accent…

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ICE, ICE Baby

Warning: the following features a Russian Scuba instructor using language that is much stronger than he realises, so if you are offended by Russian Scuba instructors using unintentionally strong language then stop reading now!

Now, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before (probably dozens of times), but for the purposes of what follows I should remind/tell you that I teach English as a Foreign Language for (what I sometimes laughingly describe as) a living. This is the necessary backstory for the fact that a number of years ago I decided that the time was ripe for me to write a mockumentary-style dramedy about an English language school.

Education is one of this country’s biggest exports, and foreign students, as a result, such a big part of the life of our big cities. Yet these students largely live in a kind of parallel universe, invisible to mainstream Australia – they clean offices while we sleep, cook our food and wash our dishes when we eat out, work overnight security at our supermarkets. And even when our world does coincide with theirs, it is for just a moment as we go in to pay at the servo, or buy gum at the 7/11; interactions that leave most of us with a memory of nothing but generic young Asian-ness.

Which is criminal, because if we weren’t so ignorant about these students, then we would quickly realise that we could be exploiting them much more comprehensively than we are. Instead of just getting them to do menial jobs and using them as cash cows to keep our universities afloat, we could also put their lives onto the small screen for our viewing pleasure. You have no idea what rich seams of both drama and comedy are lying untouched in the school, workplaces and homes of our foreign students, waiting for a TV exec with eyes as sharp as Lang Hancock to come flying over and spot the pot of entertainment gold (I know I’m mangling my export industry metaphors here). To give you a sense of it, imagine ‘Mind Your Language’ meets ‘The Office’ meets ‘Today Tonight’, and you are only halfway there, my friend.

Anyway, I actually went so far as to write a little series synopsis, outlines for characters, and treatments for all the episodes. I even came up with a title, ICE (short for ‘The International College of English’) – a title which seemed perfect, given that my industry is awash with both acronyms and overly grandiose names. In the end, though, I kind of ran out of energy for the ‘project’. Come to think of it, this may have coincided with the night Tilly was born (I thought I should throw a small bone to those who thought they were reading a parenting blog).

So where am I going with all this, you ask? And where is the foul-mouthed, deep-sea Muscovite* you were promised?  Well you see, I still think of this series, at times, and reconnect with how great it could be, and this most often happens when (as was the case just the other day) a student hands me, out of the blue, a piece of pure comedy gold.

Let me set the scene for the nugget in question. My class has just finished, and everyone is leaving, when the very lovely Victor* pulls me aside.

Victor: Teacher, can I ask question?

Me: Of course, Victor.

Victor: What is difference for using ‘me’ and ‘myself’?

Me: Ah well, generally we use ‘me’ when someone else is the subject of the verb – like ‘You love me’ or ‘He told me a joke’. But we use ‘myself’ when I am both the subject and the object of the verb. So when I do something to ‘myself’, that is when I use ‘myself’ – like (and here I use mime in an attempt to clarify) ‘I cut myself’ or ‘I saw myself in the mirror’. Does that make sense?

Victor: Yes, I think…. Teacher, other day, I hear man in street say to other man in street, ‘Go fuck yourself!’, and I wonder who is fuck who.

Me: Ah. Well, you see this is a good example of what I’m talking about, because in this situation the first man does not want to have sex with the second man. He wants the second man to have sex with himself.

At this point I once again try (and judging from Victor’s facial expression either fail or succeed to too great a degree) to mime the difference.

Victor: (Obviously somewhat shaken by what he has just seen) I think I maybe see.

Me: (As my boss enters the classroom behind me, I make one final, desperate attempt to help Victor through the careful teaming of words to illustrative action) So do you understand, Victor? You fuck me, and I fuck myself.

Victor: Ah, yes. Thank you, teacher.

He then exits quickly, and disappears up the hallway towards the lifts, and I turn to see my boss standing, with an unreadable look on her face, in the doorway.

Me: Oh…Hi.

 

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